Property Titles Empower Rural Salvadoran Women

Land bank financing gives rural poor in El Salvador a small victory by helping them own their own land

EXCEPT for its mountain view, Lilian Arriola's place is a bit grim. Two hours from Santa Ana, El Salvador's second largest city, the tiny plot of land is accessible only by four-wheel-drive vehicle. In front of the stick-and-mud house, a man stands in a pit of black muck, mixing plaster to fill in the walls. Inside, Ms. Arriola pats tortillas of home-grown maize.

But there is something extraordinary about this home: It is owned by a woman.

In the last year, 42 women squatters in Pinalon - a community of 1,500 people scattered over several square miles - have bought their own land. Benefiting both from El Salvador's violent past and the peace-minded present, each woman contracted to buy two to three manzanas (one manzana is about 1.5 acres) of land on the plantation where they have lived for years. The terms: 6 percent interest, 5 percent down payment, and up to 3,000 colones ($350) per manzana, payable over three decades.

Traditionally, peasants could not dream of owning land; the countryside belonged almost entirely to the wealthy, with many campesinos exchanging crops or farm labor for homesteads. Shrinking living space

Under this system, living space and work possibilities shrink with each generation, and children often leave the crowded family plot for precarious squatters' lives elsewhere on the same plantation. And those campesinos who own land are male; the mostly housebound women earn little cash and do not inherit land.

Twelve years of war did little to change the rules. But indirectly, El Salvador's civil crisis produced the key players in Pinalon's land deal: a female doctor, a group of rural women, and a land bank.

When Vicky Guzman left her middle-class medical practice to teach health care to El Salvador's rural poor 20 years ago, the Army accused her of subversion. Dr. Guzman insisted she was simply fighting a war that both guerrillas and government ignored.

In this "other war" - against rural disease and poverty - Guzman applied her energies in 1986 to Pinalon. The Salvadoran Association for Rural Health she founded started a clinic, a village council, and a women's group in Pinalon, as it had in numerous other poor communities before.

In 1990, a new government entity called the Land Bank was formed, funded by the United States, the United Nations, and El Salvador's government. Its $3.5 million budget was meant to finance market-rate, long-term land purchases for campesinos.

When Guzman learned that an absentee landlord in Pinalon had forfeited 105 parcels of land in a bank loan, she helped convince the Land Bank to buy the land and sell it to Pinalon's women.

Soon after agreeing, the Land Bank was tapped for a role in the January 1992 peace accords. Now the bank's exclusive task is to finance land sales to 7,500 former guerrillas, 15,000 former soldiers, and 25,000 peasants who seized land during the war. Located in a non-combative western province, Pinalon rode on the peace accords' coattails: The Pinalon women will pay the same low interest rate as the guerrillas.

All is not verdant for the new landowners, however. Much of their property is low quality. And during the 1992 ceremony, the Land Bank distributed seal-less, unsigned computer printouts instead of formal contracts. Land Bank president Rafael Montalvo, a prominent member of the ruling right-wing ARENA party, argued that these documents were temporary, the result of constraints on the bank's time and money.

The real triumphs in Pinalon may be social and psychological. Arriola says she felt desperate in the squatter community where she had lived illegally. Owning land gives her and her neighbors a new confidence, she says, because they cannot be evicted; it sparks incentive to cultivate their land and to improve their homes. Eager for development

The Pinalon sale also marks a new aperture in politics here. Since the formal end of the war, both sets of former combatants are eager to join flattering community development projects.

But the women of Pinalon may benefit most. In a country where ownership by women is perhaps unprecedented, Guzman and the Land Bank agreed in advance that only members of Pinalon's women's group could buy the land.

"In the countryside, men fear marriage - they say they'll lose their freedom," says a social worker who helped with the sale. "They have common-law wives, who have lots of children, and the men often just kick them out. Because women aren't married they have no rights."

Many of the common-law husbands - who usually earn more money than their wives - balked at investing in a land title in someone else's name. But by design, the Land Bank's terms require a two-income investment, and almost all the men agreed to take advantage of this rare opportunity for credit.

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